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Album Review: Bear’s Den – Islands

 
By on Monday, 20th October 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

Bear's Den Islands coverAlt-folk trio Bear’s Den have just released their much-anticipated debut album ‘Islands’, after achieving critical success with two previous EPs. Signed to acclaimed UK/US record label Communion, the band took part in the label’s Austin to Boston Tour in March 2012 on the strength of their first EP, ‘Agape’, before releasing ‘Without/Within’ in October 2013.

Now comprised of frontman Andrew Davie, drummer Kevin Jones, and guitar and banjo player Joey Haynes, Bear’s Den have been on TGTF’s radar for several years now, dating back to July 2011. But Davie cites the following year, 2012, as a major turning point for the band, starting with the recruitment of Haynes. “I got goose bumps at the first rehearsal”, he recalls. “We’ve got wildly disparate influences, but the three of us together have got real chemistry.” Then the aforementioned cross-country tour of America, beginning at SXSW 2013, saw them join the likes of fellow Communion-associated acts Ben Howard, Nathaniel Rateliff and The Staves.   “That was the point we really bonded as a band”, acknowledges Davie.

I first encountered Bear’s Den myself when I reviewed ‘Sahara’ from the ‘Without/Within’ EP, and I was lucky enough to see their repeat appearance at SXSW 2014 earlier this year. A mere 6 months later, they have emerged with a full LP combining a handful of previously released tracks with newly composed songs, including recent singles ‘Elysium’ and ‘Above The Clouds of Pompeii’.

The album title ‘Islands’ shares its inspiration with the moniker of the band itself, as Davie reveals in the accompanying press release. He says that Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s story ‘Where The Wild Things Are’ allows “a dual perspective of seeing the world through both a kid’s and an adult’s eyes. A lot of our songs address the world in the same way. Bear’s Den is our name for the island the kid escapes to”. The island metaphor goes back to early track ‘Stubborn Beast’, included late in the tracklisting here, which Davie says “was the first song our manager heard and connected with. The isolated nature of it embodies pretty much everything we’re trying to express”.

The album’s general theme of exploring personal relationships is more straightforward in some songs than others, encompassing the idea of platonic love in opening track ‘Agape’ and the idea of an idyllic afterlife in ‘Elysium’. The child-adult dichotomy is sharply illustrated in ‘Above the Clouds of Pompeii’, which considers the instability of a child’s relationship to his parents. The Biblical setting of ‘Isaac’ reverses that perspective, examining the relationship of parent to child in the lyric “Isaac, I could never learn / that a father’s love must be earned / while your mother need not learn / how to love you”. The opposition is fully elucidated in the music as well, with the gradually building instrumental background of ‘Above the Clouds of Pompeii’ contrasting the static, introspective setting of ‘Isaac.’

The overall feel of the music on the album is atmospheric and ethereal, often lulling the listener into a trance with its subtly layered beauty. The warm acoustic sounds of ‘Agape’ and closing ballad ‘Bad Blood’ are balanced in the more progressive rock feeling of ‘The Love That We Stole’ and ‘Think of England’, but nothing on the album ever threatens to cross into the frenetic folk energy of the inevitably-compared Mumford and Sons. Davie’s calm, even lead vocals and the steady harmonies in the backing vocals give ‘Islands’ a sense of stability and continuity, providing context for a few surprising moments, including the jarring lyric “I want to fuck away all my fear” in the dynamic climax of the album ‘When You Break’.

If ‘Islands’ is a somewhat predictable full length debut, it’s only because Bear’s Den have taken plenty of time to refine their sound and their songwriting before releasing it. Here, they’ve taken what clearly works best for them and displayed it to their best advantage, combining simple folk song structures with thought-provoking lyrics and effective instrumental arrangements to create a record that is at once cohesive and expansive, appealing to both intellect and emotion.

8.5/10

Bear’s Den‘s debut album ‘Islands’ is out today via Communion Records / Caroline International. They will tour the UK and Ireland in early 2015; all the details can be found right here.

 

Album Review: Sivu – Something on High

 
By on Tuesday, 7th October 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

From his very first single ‘Better Man Than He’ with a promo video filmed from inside an MRI machine, it was clear that Sivu would be an artist with a difference. Early on in his career, Page’s sound under his moniker Sivu was described by many as ‘eclectic’, and while using this adjective to describe his music is good, I don’t think the one word does his style justice. What makes ‘Something on High’, Sivu’s debut album for Atlantic Records, particularly of interest is that no two songs on this 11-track album sound alike, yet with successive tune, you’re drawn further into his world of fragility and poignancy.

Known to his mum as James Page, like many young people wanting a change of scenery, the singer/songwriter left Cambridgeshire for the bright lights of London. As might be expected for sensitive souls such as his, the transition took an emotional toll on him, causing him to reflect on the meaning of life and an individual’s place in this world. It’s one of the reasons not to be surprised that a major theme of the LP is the finding of and acceptance of the fragile, tender beauty of life in desperate, lonely situations. If that sounds pretty despondent, it is. But it is meant to be, reminding you of the painful cries of Daughter’s Elena Tonra on ‘Landfill’ and ‘Smother’, leaving you wondering why Communion didn’t snap up Page for their illustrious roster. (He also happens to be touring as the main support for another Communion artist, the Mercury Prize-nominated Nick Mulvey, starting on Friday.) Was he just too out there, too weird? But that’s a conversation for another time…

The album is peppered liberally with Sivu’s past successful singles and EP contents, which makes the whole affair a treasure trove for new fans to discover anew while providing a handy. Remarkably upbeat past single ‘Can’t Stop Now’ comes in at the fifth position on this album and provides a good dose of levity. ‘Better Man Than He’, with its oddly comforting repeated “lo lo los”, was written by Page about a friend’s troubles, but it has a wonderful everyman feeling, “we’ll find faith in the most magical of places / and find home in the smallest of rooms / we’ll find life in the most barren of faces / we’ll touch Christ in impending doom”.

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It is probably now time to note that while I don’t think he planned on it specifically, religion is another natural theme on this album, as existentialism and mortality are explored in this past summer’s brilliant single ‘Miracle (Human Error)’ I reviewed back in June. The allegory of Noah’s Ark specifically is used as a plot device in previous EP title track ‘Bodies’, with the mesmerising rhythm and Page’s sweeping melodic vocal sonically conjuring up the image of looming, destructive floodwaters as a metaphor for wiping the slate clean and starting over in life.

And there are even more brilliant gems beyond these, all eliciting the purest of emotions. ‘Sleep’ is the self-deprecating, 2014 sister to the Smiths’ ‘Sing Me to Sleep’, with the tear-jerky lyrics “I’m a cruel, cold-hearted waste of space / now let me sleep so I can slip away” quite possibly going beyond in the waterworks stakes than Morrissey’s own. Album opener ‘Feel Something’ seems to speak to society’s tendency for indifference, or at least indifference on the surface with hiding all true feelings inside. (Sounds a bit like typical English stiff upper lip, eh?) When Page croons, “’cause I don’t really care if you break me / I’m reading signals in the dark that’s gonna find and take me down to our death”, you’d have to be a stone not to feel an ache deep within your heart. Loneliness and the desire to reach out and touch base with someone far away, either physically or emotionally, is examined wonderfully in ‘Communicate’, as the soft strings and other instrumentation beautifully frame Page’s falsetto.

Page has said the title of this album, ‘Something on High’, was inspired by the Vincent Van Gogh painting ‘Sorrowing Old Man (At Eternity’s Gate)'; the Dutch artist completed the work 2 months before committing suicide. He has said he chose the album title not for its religious overtones but to reflect the personal self-doubt and uncertainty he felt while he was writing the songs in unfamiliar surroundings. However, taking into account the final product that will be out in the shops next week, Page should be proud of his art and confident that the truest sentiments he has put into his music will find many new fans able to relate to and eagerly embrace those feelings.

9/10

‘Something on High’, the debut album from Sivu, is out next Monday, the 13th of October, on Atlantic Records. Page himself offers up a track by track analysis of the album below. He will be playing a headline show at London Oslo Hackney next Tuesday, the 14th of October; he also begins an opening slot as primary support for Nick Mulvey on his UK tour starting Friday in Falmouth.

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Album Review: Hozier – Hozier

 
By on Monday, 6th October 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

It almost seems irrelevant to write a review of Hozier‘s self-titled debut album at this point. His hit track ‘Take Me to Church’ has been all over radio and internet for months now, and the song’s themes of sexuality and rebellion against institutionalised religion have been discussed ad nauseum. He’s previously released two EPs, ‘Take Me to Church’ and ‘From Eden’ (the latter previously reviewed here), which contain the bulk of the material on the full album, as well as several individual tracks and videos. But, if you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past 6 months and haven’t heard about Hozier, now’s the time to come out and have a listen.

The album opens with the dramatic ‘Take Me to Church’, which despite its predictability is a strong choice, as it foreshadows the musical and emotional themes Hozier explores in the rest of the songs. The strong blues and gospel influence sets the sonic tone, and the two repeats of the ‘Amen’ section still give me the same goosebumps I experienced when I heard him perform the song live at SXSW earlier this year. Both this song and second track ‘Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene’ both reference the literary idea of la petite mort, or small death, which is often used as a metaphor for orgasm. Perhaps as important, however, as the sensual connotation is the subtler implication of having a deep emotional experience, and the music later on the album is nothing if not emotional.

Along with the prevalent religious themes in many of his lyrics, Hozier also employs a distinctly gospel sound in the backing vocals on several tracks, including the sultry ‘Work Song’ and the more pop-oriented ‘Sedated’. The upbeat track ‘Jackie and Wilson’ is Hozier’s wink and nod to his musical influences, with the playful final chorus line, “we’ll name our children Jackie and Wilson / raise ‘em on rhythm and blues”. But the earlier lyric in the chorus “with my mid-youth crisis all said and done / I need to be youthfully felt, ‘cos God I never felt young” might be more telling, as the depth in his songwriting belies his youthful age.

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As the album progresses, several interesting facets of Hozier’s work come more sharply into focus. The album versions of ‘To Be Alone’ and ‘From Eden’ are more refined than the EP releases, with the howling chorus of the former shifted exquisitely to the backing vocals and the bridge section of the latter featuring an interesting string and percussion arrangement that fits perfectly with the song’s serpentine lyrics.

Along with the lyrically Romantic (note the capital R) ‘From Eden’, the album includes three tracks that might have been considered art songs if they were taken out of context, due to their emphasis on the vocal melodies and poetic imagery. ‘In a Week’, featured in a live performance here, is a delicate but earthy take on eternal love, performed as a haunting duet with Karen Cowley of Wyvern Lingo. ‘Like Real People Do’ is a gentle ballad, with a perpetually rocking rhythmic motion and angelically blended backing vocals between the verses. ‘Cherry Wine’ closes the album with a deceptively sweet finger-picked guitar melody and ambient birdsong behind its passionate lyrics.

Overall, the album is an intriguing mix of styles, blending the raw sensuality of the blues with the immediacy of rock and the tempered sensitivity of folk and classical song. Hozier’s fundamental idea of death as a dramatic reference reminds me of the Death Gospel genre explored most notably by American singer/songwriter Adam Arcuragi, who described the concept as “anything that sees the inevitability of death as a reason to celebrate all the special wonder that is being alive and sentient”. It’s unusual in this era of ephemeral pop music to hear such lofty intellectual artistic ideas receiving air play on mainstream radio, but Hozier presents them on this album in an impressive display of his blossoming musical prowess.

8.5/10

Hozier‘s eponymous debut album is out today on Rubyworks / Island Records.

 

Album Review: Lower Than Atlantis – Lower Than Atlantis

 
By on Friday, 3rd October 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

It’s a strange world we live in. Men with beards that would only years ago have seen them immediately signed to the social security register as homeless are now the ultimate female lure. You can say the word ‘crap’ on the radio and not be bombarded by a swarm of angry middle-aged mothers, intent on sketching you out as one of Satan’s most loyal and dastardly companions. It’s an age where NME have declared for the umpteenth year running, this is the year of the Great British Guitar Revolution. Oh, and have they mentioned it’s spearheaded by some dour youths from Brighton with increasingly gash haircuts?

It’s a frightening state of affairs – one in which a band is only entitled to be cool and ‘hip’ (people still use the word hip, right?) if they open their album with an intro track. Yes, we all love Foals and alt-J and we all want to be Yannis Philippakis, but how hard can every intro track get fucked? Just get on with it, for the love of god.

But when noodling intros, which could be the b-side from a cassette you bought of a whale song to help you get to sleep are regarded – not as an optional extra – but as an unmissable dollop of hyperclichéd goodness. Enter Lower Than Atlantis with an album that can help you forget this bizarre world arrayed in front of you. An album which, if the Mercury Music Prize was taken seriously anymore by the people who select the nominees, would have already been announced as the winner of the prize in 2015. Fo’ real.

What Mike Duce and his Watford based comrades Ben Sansom, Eddy Thrower and Dec Hart have achieved is an album to not just announce this band on the world stage, but to scream it naked from the rooftops, waving its collective cock from side to side maniacally, saying ‘pay attention to us, we’re not going away’. Quite a publicity stunt that would be, but flaccid, flapping cocks aside, LTA’s self-titled fourth album is the record they will be remembered for.

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Immediately, opening single ‘Here We Go’ feels like it clocks in at around the length of a full album. Simply because of the amount of times you will end up pressing the repeat button. With a chorus as colossal as the Titan of Braavos and lyrics effectively spelling out the path this band are currently travelling on: “now, we’re raging on like a locomotive / shout, we’re coming through / we’re heading for ya / we are above all of the commotion / we are on track so get back behind us.”

The emphatically catchy choruses don’t stop there: the entire album is a catalogue in how to write a bonafide alternative rock banger, with tune after tune on the record having instant repeatability. So much so, that it’ll likely take you an age to get through the album as each track has its unique facets to get your head around. The rhythmic ‘90s-esque drum beat of ‘Stays the Same’, punctuated by Duce’s indomitable vocals, is a particular standout.

The most confusing and arguably triumphant feature of ‘Lower Than Atlantis’ is ‘Criminal’, where the band go full Matt Bellamy on acid conducting the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. At times it feels like a sample from ‘The 2nd Law’, as Mike Duce gets increasingly angst ridden and begins to yell, “yes, sir, we’re gonna get some action / you distract ‘em and I will attack them.” Yes, it’s as mad as it sounds, but it’s spectacularly mad at the same point, making for completely compelling listening. It’s stadium ready rock; the savvy song writing of ‘Changing Tune’ show Lower Than Atlantis have found their niche and have hammered home their point to devastating effect.

They do the grandiose and the massive incredibly well, while also showing in the opening chords of ‘Just What You Need’ Duce and co. That they’re capable of the understated. The brilliantly built ‘Time’ is such a simple construction but with the introduction of some new voices, it becomes a layered far more textured piece of songwriting.

Lower Than Atlantis prove on this record they’re similar to Shrek.

Bear with me…

They’re a beast with layers, possessing the ability to slam out tracks that sound like they were penned to serenade mass crowds at Wembley, until you peel back the layers when they show they’re capable of songwriting that could pluck the tightest of heartstrings. They can produce a pop banger like ‘Emily’, which feels like it could almost be inspired by Busted, and then they burst in with an unquestionably huge tune like ‘Damn Nation’. Bursting at the brims with every alternative rock cliché you can ask for, “live life / love life / while I’m alive I only got one chance this time / that is do or die.” There’s not a track on here which doesn’t jump out and you and demand you take notice and that’s why ‘Lower Than Atlantis’ is unquestionably my Album of the Year.

Well, at least until ‘Sonic Highways’…we’ll see.

9.5/10

Lower Than Atlantis’ self-titled fourth album is out next Monday, the 6th of October, on Sony Red / Easy Life. Watch Lower Than Atlantis‘ pseudo video for ‘Emily’ below.

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Album Review: Catfish and the Bottlemen – The Balcony

 
By on Thursday, 2nd October 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

While Arctic Monkeys are busy both seducing and being seduced by America, and psychedelia is experiencing a powerful revival, the mainstream British guitar band format is arguably languishing (the efforts of a ragtag bunch of Britpop has-beens aside). Step forward Catfish and the Bottlemen, a vaguely Welsh group who specialise in big, guitar-y choruses and the occasional swear word. Considering they’ve been together for years, plugging away with local gigs whilst subsisting on nothing but dole money and dreams of stardom, the past few months must represent an unparalleled whirlwind of activity for Catfish and the Bottlemen. It all comes to a head with the release of their début album, ‘The Balcony.’

The last year or so has seen them release no less than six singles, first on the Communion label and then on Island records, which means ‘The Balcony’ is less album, more greatest hits collection of the band’s short career so far. Album tracks are outnumbered by single releases, which means it takes until track six before a previously unheard song makes an appearance. ‘Homesick’, ‘Kathleen’, ‘Cocoon’, ‘Pacifier’, ‘Rango’ and ‘Fallout’ will already be known to keen Catfish followers, and to this reviewer’s ears ‘Sidewinder’ sounds familiar, too. So the question is, by collecting their singles together and throwing in some B-sides, does ‘The Balcony’ add up to a more coherent release than the singles taken alone?

Sadly, not quite. Despite how appealing the occasional guilty pleasure of 3 minutes of chewy pop-rock is, trying to digest 11 such morsels in one sitting serves to highlight the genre’s inherent one-note dynamic. It’s a single paradigm – crunchy guitars, classically gritty British frontman vocals, big drums, loads of lead guitar flying over the top – and every song bar one is constructed from the same ingredients. Which is not to say there aren’t individual exciting moments here – McCann does have a genuine talent for delivering a hook-laden lead vocal, as heard particularly on ‘Kathleen’, and an everyman way with lyrics, generally concerning slightly tawdry, drunken liasons with the fairer sex (on ‘Cocoon’ and ‘Business’, for example), enlivened by the liberal use of F-bombs.

After the singles have come and gone, the mid-album ‘Hourglass’ starts acoustically, showcasing McCann’s ability to deliver a folky vocal style, his chugging rhythm guitar style, and fondness for swearing, and contributes a welcome, if modest, respite from the previous five songs’ walls of overdriven electric guitars. But after that it’s literally ‘Business’ as usual, as the overdrive pedals get stomped on, with five more big-hitters to come before the end. Subtle it’s not; effective – at least in the sense of getting people excited and jumping around – it certainly is.

None of these songs are likely to change anyone’s life or appear in a Desert Island Discs top 10. But what they do have the power to do is put a big, fat grin on one’s face for half an hour or so, particularly if they’re played loud and accompanied by a paper cup of slopping lager. Unlike sniffy, jaded reviewers, subtlety and complexity are clearly unimportant to a big chunk of the record-buying public. Big riffs and infectious enthusiasm go a long way, and with their first post-album tour sold out across the country (a tribute to the boisterous and powerful Catfish live show, the energy of which isn’t quite captured here), there’s no doubt that Catfish and the Bottlemen are one of the big cheeses of British guitar music right now. All they need to prove it is an offshore bank account.

6.5/10

‘The Balcony’, Catfish and the Bottlemen‘s debut album on Communion / Island Records, is available now. They are on tour in October and November 2014, as well as in March and April 2015 as recently announced.

 

Album Review: Foy Vance – Feel for Me EP

 
By on Tuesday, 30th September 2014 at 12:00 pm
 

Irish singer/songwriter Foy Vance’s latest EP release, ‘Feel for Me’, was timed to coincide with his appearance at the iTunes Festival on Monday the 29th of September, where he played support for his friend and musical collaborator Ed Sheeran. Vance contributed backing vocals and songwriting assistance to Sheeran’s recent album ‘X’, and Sheeran appeared on Vance’s 2013 album ‘Joy of Nothing’, from which the track ‘Feel for Me’ is taken. Sheeran says of Vance, “Every time I see Foy play, I get annoyed more people don’t know about him…inspiration just comes being in a room and guitar-jamming with him, songs just come out”.

Unfortunately, despite Sheeran’s ardent support, Vance’s new EP seems somewhat uninspired. It begins with radio edits of album tracks ‘Feel for Me’ and ‘Guiding Light’, neither of which is radically different from the previous recordings. The eponymous opening track on the EP has a fuller, warmer acoustic sound that feels much more natural for Vance than the slightly sterile production of its album counterpart. While I enjoyed the subtle changes to ‘Feel for Me’, I was a bit perplexed by ‘Guiding Light’. Often presented as Vance’s curtain call in live performance, the song is offered here without the cameo vocal appearance provided by Sheeran both on tour and on the full ‘Joy of Nothing’ LP. I can’t quite shake the odd feeling that the solo version presented on the EP would have worked better on the full album, and vice versa. The novelty of Sheeran’s duet felt a bit like a publicity stunt on ‘Joy of Nothing’ but would have fit perfectly onto this EP collection of edits and B-sides.

The EP also includes a live acoustic version of the album’s title track, ‘Joy of Nothing’, recorded live in session with BBC Radio 2’s Bob Harris. This is a very subdued rendering of what was an uplifting track on the album, but the stripped back dynamic does get more at the heart of what the song is about, simplicity and appreciation of the little things in life. Vance’s singing is soft and raspy, even more rough around the edges than usual, and his improvisatory vocal at the end of the song is one of the EP’s redeeming moments.

The EP’s final track ‘Dark Horse’ is an unreleased B-side from ‘Joy of Nothing’, given away last summer as a free download via NoiseTrade leading into the album release. The deceptively simple, purely sentimental chorus “hold me close and hold me strong / hold me pure and hold me long / hold me dark and hold me light / hold me wrong, hold me right” seems tailor-made for the emotionality of live sing-alongs, but the production here is austere, highlighting instead the soulful sincerity of Vance’s vocal delivery.

The ‘Feel For Me’ EP is a bit of an awkward supplement to the full ‘Joy of Nothing’ LP. Enthusiastic Foy Vance fans will be nonplussed, if not bored to tears, by the first two tracks, while new listeners might find their interest piqued by the radio single ‘Feel for Me’. The final two tracks are less exciting for new ears but might compel longtime fans to keep listening. Vance may be hedging his bets, but we can hope that it’s in careful preparation for the release of something new in the near future.

6.5/10

The ‘Feel For Me’ EP from Foy Vance is out now on Glassnote Records.

 
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We love music that has its heart on its sleeve, tells a story, swims around our head all day or makes us dance like idiots.

The blog is edited by Mary Chang, who is based in Washington DC. She is joined by writers in the UK and America. It was started up by Phil Singer in Bristol, UK.

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